Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump were not adversaries before the world’s biggest social-media platform gave the President the boot last week – after his MAGA gang of thugs, conspiracy theorists and Joe Biden haters stormed the Capitol. They may even have been friends – they certainly appeared to be friends of convenience.
We know that, in November, 2019, Mr. Trump invited Mr. Zuckerberg to dinner at the White House. Billionaire tech venture capitalist Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member and big Trump supporter, was also there, according to The New York Times.
We don’t know the details of what they talked about, but there is lots of speculation that, in effect, they struck an informal non-aggression pact: Mr. Trump could continue to spew his angry bile on the site and take advantage of its viral power as he headed into the 2020 election, while Mr. Zuckerberg would look the other way, possibly safe in the knowledge that the Trump administration would not threaten to break up Facebook or swamp it with regulations that would damage its business model.
I wonder if TikTok came up in the conversation (there is no suggestion it did). By then, the Chinese-owned video-sharing site was coming on strong in the United States, emerging as one of Facebook’s greatest competitive threats. Mr. Zuckerberg himself seemed rattled by TikTok’s amazing rise. He used a Georgetown University speech a month before his White House dinner to warn that TikTok censored videos. “Is that the internet we want?” he said.
In August last year, Mr. Trump signed an executive order restricting TikTok’s U.S. operations over national security concerns, a move that no doubt pleased Mr. Zuckerberg. Since then, the White House has been trying to force ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to sell the site’s U.S. business, though legal challenges have so far thwarted the effort. There is ample speculation that Facebook would bid for the business.
The invasion of the Capitol by Trump loyalists ended the cozy relationship between Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Trump. Facebook moved fast to banish the President from the site. Twitter, Snapchat, Twitch and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, did the same. Amazon’s AWS cloud service and the Apple and Google app stores dropped Parler, a social-networking site favoured by far-right extremists and supporters of Mr. Trump, ostensibly to discourage him from taking his online activities to that platform.
But don’t for a second think that the bosses and owners of these platforms suddenly developed a social conscience. If they had been guided by moral principles, they would have ditched Mr. Trump years ago – it’s not like his unhinged rants, conspiracy theories, threats, lies and racist taunts only began in January; they have been a constant feature of his presidency.
Mr. Trump simply went from traffic-driving asset – albeit an embarrassing one – to liability. If the U.S. social-media giants were consistent, they would ban other madmen, too. Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro is still on Twitter, even though most of the West, including the United States, regards his 2018 re-election as a sham. The English-language Twitter account associated with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who regularly incites violence against Israel, is also alive and well.
What Facebook and the other sites displayed was flexibility, not principles. The power shifted away from Mr. Trump and toward Mr. Biden, so continuing to hand Mr. Trump a global soapbox to insist that Mr. Biden’s election victory was illegitimate – and fire up his supporters who believe the same – would not ingratiate them with Washington’s new powers. And Mr. Trump failed to deliver TikTok to Facebook or another American buyer, so he was not just a liability, he was expendable.
The social-media giants had a great stock market run in the Trump era, and inviting Mr. Biden’s ire would be a sure way to stop it. In 2016, when Mr. Trump won the election, Facebook had 1.2 billion active users; today it has 1.8 billion. Since that election, its share price has more than doubled, to US$250, giving the company a market value of US$700-billion. Twitter share prices have tripled since the election. Mr. Trump’s massive corporate tax cut and light regulation helped propel their rises.
A vindictive Biden administration could do far worse than end the social-media companies’ market rallies. It could try to ramp up and expand the antitrust case already launched by the federal government and 46 states against Facebook. They accuse the company of abusing its power and squashing competition.
The government could hit the social-media companies with a revenue tax or eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields Facebook, Twitter and others from lawsuits over the content posted by users. They could face – and probably will face – tighter European-style regulation on hate speech, which includes hefty fines, but that would, relatively speaking, be a minor inconvenience.
For Facebook and the others, being nice to Mr. Trump had outlived its usefulness. The new game is to curry favour with Mr. Biden. Eliminating Mr. Trump’s presence from social media was the right thing to do for shareholders. It just has nothing to do with morality.
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